It was about tradition. Reinvented in Brooklyn some time ago as East met West, this timeless French classic still makes for the absolute best opening to any day. Café au lait et croissants, façon Constantia.
A perfect blue sky would already be spread over Cape Town like a giant, crispy-clean table cloth thrown upside down over our mornings. It would rarely be much earlier than nine or ten o’clock, unless the day called for serious action in which case we might be brave and stumble out of bed at eight! Birds would be singing happily in the luxuriant garden and the flowers planted by our bedroom window would send a sweet cocktail of perfumes drifting into the room.
9 Sun Valley Avenue is a long, low-lying, adorable house with a garage at each end and a long corridor spanning the entire length with rooms scattered on each side. Very Hobbit-like, I’d say. In the front, facing a small cul-de-sac, is a small porch over the main entrance. On the night of big gatherings, candles in lanterns are hung under its roof. And in the back, perfectly hidden from curious eyes, is the garden – cornerstone, so to speak, of the place. Tasteful, beautifully designed and deeply loved, it gives the house its soul and turns it into a retreat for which one can’t help longing. A small pool sits in the lower corner underneath tall trees and at the opposite end, an even taller tree domes over the brick platform on which the main table is set for banquets. And groom inspections.
Finally, linking the house to the garden like a bridge between two mighty empires, is the terrace, where our days would begin. But first, breakfast had to be prepared in the dimly lit kitchen where Selina would probably already be busily moving around. Espresso would be brewed in the Bialetti, milk heated up, croissants touched up in the oven, butter sliced and covered away from flies, homemade apricot jam readied, extra toasts goldened, and this would all daringly be ferried to the table outside on a painted wooden tray, extra care being taken not to trip on the loving fauna.
Because you see, at number 9, there is always a pet available to dispense undiluted affection and good vibes. For those uninitiated readers who might wonder, here’s a brief description of the local menagerie: there’s Ben, the black lab, largest and softest of them all. A big bear with amazing patience who endures the annoying playful bites of Ted (see below) without ever flinching, but lets it all out when it comes to protecting the house, or its contents. Then there’s Maggie and Ted, the halflings. Corgis, they are. Long, caterpillar-like dogs with a sweet character and sad eyes. As Maureen once put it, too much body for not enough legs. Ted gets dirty, Maggie stays clean. Maggie chases a ball, Ted chases his tail (and Ben’s ball(s)…) Then there are the felines. Adorable Kehdi is mostly blind and responds to human voice like a parrot. She has a sweet thing for shoulders, in which she firmly digs her claws and then proceeds to inspect the world from above at her host’s pace, probably considering herself saved from said world’s many threats. There’s Andre Khamel, hilariously named by Henri after a defeated French opposition lawyer, a name choice that beats even my very own childhood Pompidou. There’s albino-like Spook, very old and fragile, soft as silk and looking like an owl in her pale ashen dress. And there’s Mr Wellington, part-time resident, the biggest of all cats with the weakest character – it must have been a trade off…
So there on the terrace, with Khamel lazily sleeping on a chair next to us and the corgis as footrests, we would begin our day. The southeasters, blowing strong at that time of the year, would only reach Constantia in the form of a nice breeze, gently brushing past the poplars of the nearby green belt in a long hush whisper. The green and steel-blue leaves would flicker above us and make the garden come alive. But even more alive, in the distance, would be the table cloth cloud, flirting with its mountain, caressing it gently while descending along the slopes, perfectly sharp white line against the immense blue sky.
We’d sip our coffee and dip the croissants, looking around, taking deep breaths, talking in a low voice about the day to come, planning a hike, a visit to a beach and penguins, a trip to the Karoo, an excursion into government land or lawyer practices, a scouting of antique jewelry stores, a shopping mission at Woolworths, a fabulous picnic watching the southern sun set, some lunch or dinner at one of many wonderful restaurants, an upcoming reception, or just un-planning life-changing events and joking softly about it…
And then the days would go by, as fast as scenery on a train. Never two alike, ever-changing, rhythmic, too fast. Punctuated by gorgeous lunches and sumptuous dinners. By noon champagne and late afternoon martinis and wine, always. By biltong and snoek pate. By power failures and the coughing of the generator. By flowers everywhere and custard cream on malfa pudding. By wild games with the dogs. By stories and by memories. By trips outside and trips backwards and inwards. And when the night came and doors were locked, and the house fell silent, we would go on, whispering about the day’s colors and smiles, about pictures in our heads and memories stored, muffling our laughs and already thinking about the next magical moment: breakfast on the terrace.